As they were planning their joint exhibition at Ricco/Maresca, Alice Hope, Bastienne Schmidt, and Toni Ross agreed to choose an evocative object from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art that would serve as an organizing principle for each artist’s portion of the show. To their surprise, all of them chose the same piece: an Oceanic navigational chart from the Marshall Islands (a rebbilib). On second thought, though, perhaps it isn’t that unexpected: the three share an interest in archaeology, in artefacts, in wayfinding, and in the meanings their materials suggest. And the stick chart is itself an exceptionally charismatic object in a museum of charismatic objects. It would certainly be in my top 10.
Marshallese navigators constructed and used navigational charts to help them to conceptualize long-distance ocean voyages. Made from coconut leaf midribs, and often festooned with shells or other organic markers, the charts imagine giant bodies of water. Though sometimes referred to as maps, these charts are far more conceptual than any map. They did not travel with the navigator: at nearly four feet wide, the chart at the Met would be too cumbersome to bring into an outrigger, and to think that they would be read as a paper or GPS map is to miss the point. Navigators constructed them not only to visualize the sea, but to feel it as well. They are mnemonic devices rather than simultaneous guides, and may function more like memory palaces than reference maps. In Alfred Gell’s formulation, they are models as well as implements, memory machines that do their work specifically for their maker and only at a remove from that person. They tack dry but work wet.